Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Water Wars

“Children of a culture born in a rich water environment, we have never really learned how important water really is. We understand it, but we don't respect it.”
-William Ashworth

We have been without water on my homestead for nine days now. That’s a long time. That means nine days of rationing water between bathing, cooking, cleaning and washing anything.

The canal that brings water from Angola to the northern part of Namibia was damaged in the recent floods. Due to fears that using this slightly broken canal would only cause further damage, potentially cutting off all water supplied to the north, the powers that be decided to start rationing the water. Originally, I heard that water would be switched off during the day, but would be turned on from 6am to 9am and again from 5pm to 9pm daily. That wouldn’t be so bad. Sure, it is winter and it is very cold during those non-daylight hours, but it would at least give us all an opportunity to stock up on water during the night so we wouldn’t have to go without during the day. So for a few weeks, we all waited in anticipation as the sun set, and then crowded around our outdoor tap, filling and re-filling every container we had.

Unfortunately, it seems that the pipe that brings water from the nearby well to my homestead was also damaged in the floods, and now our well has been shut off completely. We have our tap turned on all the way and have placed a huge metal bucket underneath so that if the water should happen to go on in the night, it would make a loud noise as it hit the bucket and would wake us all so we could run outside and take advantage. This hasn’t happened yet.

It would be generous to say that we usually have a reliable supply of water. Water crises are occurring all over the world and Namibia is no exception. It is said that by the year 2025, two thirds of the world population will be without safe drinking water. All over Africa people are forced to walk great distances to get to water sources, many of which are heavily polluted and very unsafe to drink. Some 5 million people die each year due to polluted drinking water. Furthermore, many diseases and ailments common in the developing world (i.e. cholera, yellow fever, diarrhea, malnutrition) put a person on the fast track to dehydration. In fact, diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death for children and infants around the world. In many cases, this kind of death could have easily been prevented had the child had access to clean water.

Namibia is a very dry country and water is always scarce, and it isn’t uncommon for the well at my homestead to be dry for a day or two straight. But nine days is a long time. I have two 20 litre military-style jerry cans that I fill up whenever I get a chance. And though 40 litres may sound like a lot of water (and in reality it is), you’d be surprised at how much water is “needed” in an average day. Think of everything you use water for in your daily life: shower, brushing teeth, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes. Not to mention drinking water.

I did a little google-ing, and was amazed to find that the average American uses about 123 gallons—or 466 liters-- of water daily.

I found this chart at:


Water used


15-30 gallons (57-114 liters)

Brushing teeth (water running)

1-2 gallons (3.75-7.51 liters)

Shaving (water running)

10-15 gallons (38-57 liters)

Washing dishes by hand

20 gallons (75 liters)

Washing dishes in dishwasher

9-12 gallons (4-45 liters)

Flushing toilet

5-7 gallons (19-26 liters)

These numbers vary a bit depending on where you do your research, but the general consensus is that the average person in the developed world uses between 80 and 150 gallons of water per day. PER DAY. That’s a lot of water. My 10.5 gallon jerry cans would be finished before breakfast.

When dealing with a limited supply of water, it becomes necessary for one to prioritize. Some things, like staying hydrated, are essential, while others can be downgraded.

Take, for example, bathing. To me, bathing seems like the most overused water-consuming indulgence we all partake in. Incidentally, it was also the most sensible thing to cut out of my life. I’m not saying that I’ve completely given up washing my body, but for the time being it’s on the back burner. It has to be. It’s really amazing how much water is used to shower, even to bucket bathe. I definitely don’t use between 57 or 114 litres of water when I bucket bathe, but I do use a good-sized basin full of water that could be used for countless other more pressing things. Since moving to the north, I’ve become accustomed to going a week at a time without bathing but that was by choice before. Now, after 7+ days without any water access, I couldn’t even bathe if I wanted to. And some days I really do want to.

Keeping the house clean also requires quite a bit of water. To wash dishes at my house we use a large basin filled with water. It only takes about one “load” of dishes for that water to get pretty dirt and non-usable if your primary goal is to actually clean your pots and pans. I definitely cook more now than I used to (which isn’t saying much) but lately, to avoid adding to the growing stack of unwashed dishes, I’ve been limiting my food consumption to raw food and hardboiled eggs. The only time I really stray from that diet is when I eat traditional food with my family, which is cooked over the fire in huge cast iron pots that are used daily and do not get washed.

About 90% of what I eat is grown in my family’s garden or raised somewhere on our homestead. I can find cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, spinach, beans, mushrooms, chicken and eggs all in my backyard, not to mention mahangu which is pounded and turned into traditional porridge, oshifima. When the water is running, we run a hose from our tap out into our fields so the plants can drink up. And while I splurge occasionally on things like cheese and peanut butter, my family subsists entirely on what we raise here. Now, I’m no horticulturist but I’m pretty sure that these plants (and, in turn, our diets) will not survive much longer without water.

One thing that seems unaffected by the lack of water here is any toilet issue. My homestead obviously doesn’t have plumbing, and when the water goes out for nine days I’m reminded why having a pit latrine is a good thing. Nine days of backed up toilets would be no good and while I dislike running from my house to the latrine in the middle of the night to pee, it seems a fair trade off when the alternative is a porcelain pot, shared by 10+ people, that has no flushing capabilities.

It’s only once you live without water that you realize how much of your life is dependent on it. People have often asked me which is harder to live without: electricity or water, and it’s definitely the latter. Not having electricity is a pain and does limit some everyday luxuries (and does inevitably change one’s nightly bedtime to about 7pm), but the limits that come with no electricity are far more bearable than those that come with lack of water flow.

So now, nine days of waiting for a fresh drop to clang into that bucket, I end up having to choose between bathing (and other non-necessities) or having water to drink. And in the “Would You Rather Drink or Bathe” competition, drinking water always wins.

So what’s the big deal, right? You have 40 litres saved up, so make it work. It seems doable, and really it is, but making it last takes some practice. In the end I don’t choose between bathing and drinking; instead, I’ve merged most of my water behavior. Depending upon the day, I can use one basin of water to get most of my household chores done. I start in the morning by opening the old jerry can and filling up one pitcher as well as my nalgene, both of which are solely for drinking. I then fill up a large basin with water, setting some aside for brushing teeth as well as for cooking. I use a small bit of the water in the basin for a quick cowboy bath, and the rest is reserved for cleaning. With 40 litres of water, this routine can continue successfully for a good week. After about 7 days, however, the water starts to get pretty scarce, which means the pitcher only gets half filled, the large basin becomes a small one, and the cowboy bath gets nixed completely. The same water that is used in the morning for brushing teeth is used for any laundry afterwards and finally for washing dishes in the evening. It sounds gross, I know, but only if you really think about it, which I try not to. It is what it is, and since I have no control over it I’ve made my peace with it. It helps that everyone on my homestead is going through this together. In my experience, these types of inconveniences are much more bearable—and even humorous—when experienced in a group. I mean, 8 people all living in one house without bathing for a week… I know there’s humor somewhere in that.

I’d like to say that after living in Namibia, after realizing what a truly valuable commodity water is, I will never again waste a drop of it, but I doubt that’s true. I still love the idea of a long, hot shower, and I when asked I always note washing machines as my “most missed” American amenity. So what’s the point of learning how to live this way? I suppose it’s to be humbled. To be fully aware that even though I will one day return to a life of not having to count the drops of water I use, of not having to decide between bathing or cooking—to understand that there are many more people throughout the world who will never know that luxury does humble me. If nothing more, I’ve certainly learned to appreciate water and will probably think twice before going for that second shower of the day or letting the water run until it’s cold. Then again, this could be nothing more than my dehydration-induced delirium talking:)

“"The trouble with water—and there is trouble with water—is that they're not making any more of it. They're not making any less, mind, but no more either. There is the same amount of water in the planet now as there was in prehistoric times. People, however, they're making more of—many more, far more than is ecologically sensible—and all those people are utterly dependent on water for their lives (humans consist mostly of water), for their livelihoods, their food, and increasingly, their industry. Humans can live for a month without food but will die in less than a week without water. Humans consume water, discard it, poison it, waste it, and restlessly change the hydrological cycles, indifferent to the consequences: too many people, too little water, water in the wrong places and in the wrong amounts.”

-Marq de Villiers


Blogger Big M said...

I've been enjoying your amazing blog for the last few days!
I found you while planning for and researching our "Step Up for Kids" Community Day at Mayo Elementary in Tulsa, OK. Next Tuesday we'll be "stepping up" and learning about the rights of every child in our country and around the world, with a focus on S. Africa.
Mayo students will also be participating in the Oklahoma chapter of this nation-wide event here in Tulsa that day. Across the nation, many states will be having their own press conferences encouraging legislators to "Vote for Kids!"
Just thought you'd like to know we will be sharing parts of your blog with Mayo students -- "Water Wars" entry is full of excellent information for our "Water" learning station.
Any relief from the drought in sight? Africa is a land of extremes, and speaking of extreme weather...wish we could send some rain from the hurricanes your way. Hurricane Ike is getting ready to come ashore in Galveston, Alvin, and Houston, Texas, and we're getting lots of rain here in Okla.from that.
Thanks for all your thoughtful observations and comments! I will continue to work my way through your blog, as I am a huge fan of your photo journalism! You've had an incredible experience and I thank you for sharing it with us!

Laura Bullock
Mayo Special Services
Tulsa Public Schools

5:23 AM  

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